Excerpt from The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo, forthcoming Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (now available here for purchase). DO NOT QUOTE, CITE, COPY OR DISTRIBUTE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.
In 2002, Robin Maxwell, who had written a highly-praised novel about Anne, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, was given a new manuscript to read. Arcade editor Trish Todd wanted to know, would Robin give it a blurb?
The manuscript took Maxwell by surprise. Most novels about Anne that were written in the 1980’s and 90’s had been quite sympathetic toward her. Maxwell’s own book (1997)is constructed around the delightful fiction that daughter Elizabeth discovers Anne’s diary and learns how much her mother loved her and how “cruel and outrageously unjust” her father had been; the knowledge redeems Anne in her daughter’s eyes and sets Elizabeth up for a lifetime of caution about giving the men in her life too much power. In Jean Plaidy’s beautifully wrought The Lady in the Tower (1986), we find Anne imprisoned, thinking back on her life, wondering “how I had come to pass from such adulation to bitter rejection in three short years”; her reflections are those of a mature, regretful, clear-sighted woman, capable of recognizing her own faults, but very much aware of how her own mis-steps had been cruelly exploited by others. This new book, however, seemed to Maxwell to be a modernized recreation of the old Catholic view of Anne as a scheming viper.
“I was appalled,” Robin recalled in a phone interview with me. “It was a great read, a page turner. But she had taken every rumor, every nasty thing that anyone had ever said about Anne Boleyn and turned it into the truth in her book. You can argue that she had every right because she’s a historical fiction author, but I refused the blurb on principle because of its vicious, unsupportable view of Anne.”
The book was Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. In it, the character of Anne is indeed more selfish, spiteful, and vindictive than she had appeared in any previous novel, a nasty, screechy shrew who poaches Henry from her generous, tenderhearted (and very blonde) sister Mary and proceeds to tyrannize her (and everyone around her), barking out orders, plotting deaths, appropriating her sister’s child, and—when she miscarries her final pregnancy with Henry—coercing her brother George to have sex with her. Neither “Sleeping Beauty” nor “Cinderella” strike a more clean-cut division between the good and the wicked woman, with Anne playing the role of the wicked witch and Mary the long-suffering, virtuous heroine. As in any other fairy tale, however, the good are ultimately rewarded and the evil are punished. Anne, having gone to “the gates of hell” with her brother in order to get pregnant, miscarries a deformed child (an idea that Gregory picked up from Retha Warnicke’s 1989 biography), is accused of witchcraft, and goes to the scaffold (in far less dignified fashion than history records) while Mary, with Elizabeth in her arms, retires to a bucolic life with husband and children.
Gregory describes herself as a “feminist, radical historian” and Mary Boleyn as a feminist heroine—apparently because she has sex and yet isn’t portrayed as “bad.” (I thought we went past that—and then some–with Bridget Jone’s Diary, “Ally McBeal” and “Sex and the City”.) “It is no coincidence,” she says, “that our prejudiced opinions of women of the Tudor court are drawn from the devoted Victorian historians who were the first translators and publishers of the original Tudor documents, but were deeply committed to their own view of women as either saints or whores.” Her novel, in contrast, allows Mary to be both sexual and saint-like, and despite having been “used” sexually by Henry, she is rewarded with the best ending of anyone in the book (which just happens to be a life of domestic happiness). “Mary’s story is one of absolute independence and victory,” Gregory says, and a “triumph of common sense over the ambition of her sister Anne.” Huh? Sex is allowed, but ambition isn’t? What kind of feminism is this? The answer to that appears to be: an opportunistic, infinitely malleable one. Gregory, in a more recent interview, complains about how “one-eyed some historians have been” in their depictions of women of power: “They are always portrayed as power-hungry, pretty ambitious, manipulative, cold or proud.” This sounds like a pretty fair description of her own portrayal of Anne Boleyn.
The book was well-reviewed and has been fabulously successful among a general readership. It stormed the US market, selling more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, and has by now been published in 26 countries. It won the Parker Pen Novel of the Year award 2002, the Romantic Times fictional biography award, was adapted for the BBC as a single television drama and was made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn, Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII. It has legions of devoted fans, who write gushing tributes on Gregory’s website. But other novelists and historians, both professional and amateur, range from the politely critical to the seething when The Other Boleyn Girl is mentioned. Most, however, are offended less by the “viciousness” of its view of Anne than by its many historical inaccuracies. Hilary Mantel notes that the notion that Anne gave birth to a deformed child is an “eccentric interpretation” which has “gained traction” because of its sensational elements. Robin Maxwell criticizes Gregory for “knowing the truth” as a scholar but then going with what is “most dramatic” for her readers, even when there is “zero evidence.” Michael Hirst, who knows what it’s like to be charged with distorting history, describes Philippa Gregory as “having no historical sensibility at all. Her characters are all middle class people wandering into a historical situation and behaving in a very modern middle class way… Her Anne is like someone in the dorm of your university.” One internet site will not even call Philippa Gregory by name, instead referring to her sarcastically as “our favorite historical novelist” and engaging in fantasy-conversations involving sending snipers to her public talks.
There’s no doubt that Gregory plays fast and loose with history in The Other Boleyn Girl(See “The
Other Boleyn Girl Fact Checker” for specifics) and even more so when the book was made into a movie. The screenplay, written by Gregory and Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon), contributed fresh inventions to the story. Michael Grandage, who directed the HBO drama Frost/Nixon, credits Morgan with the ability to weave a fictional storyline “so deeply” into a factual situation “that audiences don’t know where the boundaries of truth lie.” In the case of The Other Boleyn Girl, the “interwoven” fantasies/fictions included a gratuitous (and utterly out-of-character) rape of Anne by Henry, Mary begging Henry for a last-minute pardon for Anne, and a heroic capture of Elizabeth by Mary, who strides into court after Anne’s execution, grabs her niece, and—with the whole court watching and not lifting a finger—leaves the palace with the future queen in her arms. Oh, and another trifle—“The movies manages to virtually edit out a rather large historical fact: the Reformation” As Gina Carbone puts it in her review, “Let’s just say you shouldn’t watch this and base any Jeopardy answers on it.”
The actors, apparently, did little research beyond reading the novel (Gregory commends Scarlett Johnson, who played Mary Boleyn, for having “her copy of my book in her hand practically all the time we were on set”), learning how deeply to curtsy from an etiquette coach (“It was those kinds of things’”says Johannson, “that added to the freshness and authenticity of the period”), and mastering the English accent. Natalie Portman, who played Anne, admits to not “relating” to her character, but appears to be so postmodern in her approach to history (perhaps due to her Harvard degree) that it didn’t matter much: “You have to accept that all history is fiction. All you get from history is competing views.” Eric Bana didn’t even bother with checking out the history books. “Look,” he told the director Justin Chadwick when offered the part, “I’m not someone who ever envisaged myself playing a king, or anything like that. But Henry, the guy, I think I can get to the core of him and I want to play him just as a man, that’s all I know. So I just used that. I didn’t get too bogged down in history, because I felt like at the core of it, it was kind of irrelevant.”
Not getting “bogged down” in history mattered to some, and not to others. “No matter what criticisms The Tudors may have received for its inaccuracies,” one reviewer wrote, “the Showtime series seems like a History Channel documentary compared to this movie.” Respected historical novelist Margaret George, in an email exchange with me about the actors’ comments, was less circumspect:
“I think they are all a bunch of ignoramuses. Lazy. Un-intellectually curious. As for hiding behind such a dumb and dismissive statement as ‘all you got from historians was competing views, anyway’, I wonder if they carry that philosophy over into their medical treatments? (“What the heck, they can’t decide how many cigarettes it takes to cause lung cancer, so I’ll just ignore it all!”) Frankly, they all gave dismal performances in TOBG because they were all miscast, except for Scarlett, who acted somnolent through the whole thing even though from a distance she kind of looked like Mary Boleyn. And sorry, Natalie just wasn’t convincing as someone who could topple a throne. Maybe if they’d studied their history a little they could have done a better job.”
But others didn’t care whether or not, for example, Anne actually propositioned her brother. “It makes for a juicy and shocking footnote,” shrugged Rex Reed, tellingly conflating the apparatus of scholarship with an “event” that has been pretty thoroughly shown by scholars to be Cromwell’s invention. And now that it has become culturally referenced by the film, a whole new generation, with little background in history but an extensive media education, has become vulnerable, once again, to the argument. “Well done and beautifully produced,” proclaims the headline of one review, “Satisfactorily explains the incest charge against Anne Boleyn.” Another on-line reviewer admits that “near the finale, the dim recollection of my studies and the few facts that I’ve gleaned from other films combined their meager forces as one of Henry’s daughters is named, and my inner monologue actually mixed Hollywood and history and noted ‘I think that baby girl grows up to be Cate Blanchett.’?” This is what Mark Lawson has called the “Oliver Stone phenomenon’, referring to the sizeable number of Americans who believe Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” to be an accurate portrayal of an actual conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
The Other Boleyn Girl fact-checker:
Anne deliberately “steals” Henry from Mary (Henry’s affair with Mary was over before he began to pursue Anne.)
Anne forces Mary to give up her son to be raised at court.
Anne says she wants Wolsey dead.
Anne behaves viciously to her sister on many occasions.
Anne induces a miscarriage (third pregnancy) when she thinks the fetus is dead.
Anne has sex with her brother in order to conceive a child.
No Evidence or Contrary Evidence:
Intense rivalry between Anne and Mary (no evidence).
Mary Boleyn has two children by Henry, one of whom is a son (Elizabeth Blount, Henry’s former mistress, had Henry’s son. Whether or not Mary had any children by Henry is not known.).
Anne has sex with Henry Percy (no evidence.)
Brother George has an affair with Francis Weston. (This comes from Retha Warnicke’s theory of a “homosexual ring” at Henry’s court. It’s possible, of course, but no evidence.)
Mary was a virgin before her first marriage. (There are many reports of sexual activity in Francis’s court.)
Anne’s mother hides evidence of Anne’s miscarriage (second pregnancy) by burning the miscarried fetus. (It’s possible that Anne hid a miscarriage, but it’s speculation. No evidence at all that her mother burned a fetus.)
Anne gives birth to a “horridly malformed” baby (This is Retha Warnicke’s theory, but there is no evidence for it. In contemporary accounts, the fetus is referred to only as “a shapeless mass”)
Added in the Hollywood movie (screenplay by Peter Morgan):
Henry was attracted to Anne first, but got turned off when she humiliated him horseback riding. (In fact, Henry had an affair with Mary before he became interested in Anne.)
In disgrace, Anne was exiled to France after marrying Henry Percy (Anne did not marry Percy, and she was sent to the Burgundian court of Margaret of Austria, and then France, when she was 12, to be educated and “finished”)
After Mary has just given birth to Henry’s son, Anne (worried that this will foil her own designs on Henry) orders Henry never to talk to Mary again if he wants to have Anne. Henry agrees and walks out of the room, indifferent to his infant son.
Henry becomes hostile and indifferent to Anne sexually even before the marriage. (Henry pursued Anne for six years before they married—a prolonged courtship missing from the movie—and there is no evidence that he became hostile to her until very late in the marriage.
Henry VIII rapes Anne Boleyn.
Mary intercedes on Anne’s behalf and tries to get Henry to pardon her sister.
Mary Boleyn walks into court after Anne’s execution, and takes Elizabeth with her.
Of course, if my book has demonstrated anything at all, it’s that neither The Tudors nor The Other Boleyn Girl has a monopoly on the creative uses of a history that, after all, has some very large holes in the record. Nell Gavin, whose ingenious and moving Threads follows Anne through several reincarnations, is based on a metaphysical premise that many readers find dubious, Anne of the Thousand Days cooks up a fictional exhange between Henry and Anne that not only did not happen but is almost unimaginable, Norah Lofts’ The Concubine has Anne engaging not just in one but multiple, anonymous acts of adultery, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons conveniently omits Thomas More’s heretic-burnings from among his other hobbies, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has Cromwell suspicious of Anne from the very beginning of their relationship, whereas in fact they were allies for much of her reign. These depictions are not just accepted without protest, but prize-winning, beloved, admired. So why the special outrage over Gregory?
What seems most offensive to historians are not Gregory’s distortions of fact, but her self-deceptive and self-promoting chutzpah. “Because I am a trained historian,” she wrote in 2008 (in fact, her degree is in 18th century literature), “I described the story of the Boleyn girls in the full context of the dramatic political, religious and social changes of the time. Without realizing it, in so doing I invented a new way of writing the historical novel in which the ‘history’ part of the equation is just as important as the ‘novel’ part. The fact plays as great a part in the story as the fiction, and when there is a choice of fact or fiction, I always choose the factual version. The only time that I create events for my real-life characters is to join up one factual event and another, to fill in the gaps of their story.” She describes herself as a scrupulous researcher who “applies very strict rules of accuracy” to her novels: “I read tons of primary and secondary material on a subject,” she said in a 2010 interview, “and then, using the absolute facts of a life as the bones of a story, that’s what I write.” What does she supply as a novelist? Only “the bits that we don’t know” and “feelings, because we don’t know how people felt.”
In the case of Anne Boleyn, “the bits that we don’t know” are far more plentiful than the bits that we do know, so Gregory has given herself plenty of room to maneuver—as a novelist. But Gregory wants to defend her narrative choices as history, too, although waveringly. In one interview, Gregory described the “made up bits” as speculation about what was “fairly likely.” In a Q and A appendix to The Other Boleyn Girl, however, she went further, claiming that all her choices “can be defended as historical probability” and then still further, with bold statements such as “Anne Boleyn was clearly guilty of one murder” (and probably another, she implies) and—in another interview—“Anne’s incest is powerfully suggested by the historical record” (“the historical record” here seems to be the fact that she was found guilty.) In the production notes for the television version of The Other Boleyn Girl she backs off a bit, admitting that having Anne proposition her brother George is “speculative history.” But then, perhaps feeling the need to justify her “choice” further, goes on: “You could argue that would have been quite a sensible thing to do if she could get away with it.” As for the alleged “murder”—the attempted poisoning of John Fisher—it is simply defended as “fact,” although there’s no evidence that Anne had anything to do with it.
It’s Gregory’s insistence on her meticulous adherence to history that most aggravates the scholars. David Loades: “What is important is that the author should be honest, and not claim an historical basis which does not in fact exist. It would have been safer if Philippa Gregory had claimed to be writing fiction, because that is what she was doing.” Both Margaret George and Hilary Mantel, in contrast to Gregory, make the fictional status of their novels absolutely clear. George includes a guide to what is factual and what is invented in her books; “Readers seem to really want that—they need to know whether this or that scene really happened, or where certain information came from. I think more and more writers are asking that it be included.” Mantel, in an email exchange with me, described Wolf Hall not as “history” but “part of a chain of literary representation. My Cromwell shakes hands with the Cromwell of the Book of Martyrs, and with the trickster Cromwell of the truly awful but funny Elizabethan play about him. I am conscious of all his later, if fugitive, incarnations in fiction and drama. I am conscious on every page of hard choices to be made, and I make sure I never believe my own story.” Gregory’s website, in contrast, repetitively intones the mantra that her work is “absolutely rooted in the historical record.” “I’m passionate about getting things right,” she says in a 2008 interview. (The example she gives: a “long investigation,” for the movie, “of precisely when riding sidesaddle first being known in England.”)
Gregory doesn’t like her facts or expertise being challenged, either. In a piece written around the same time, she derides an “eager young researcher” for questioning her about the accuracy of her book, “as if my research were succulent kebabs to be skewered.” As a best-selling author of 20 years, she’s used to “being solemnly told that such-and-such a thing does not exist because it doesn’t appear on Wikipedia. I have all the complexity of having read 20 different sources, while the eager young researcher has all the confidence of having read an abstract of only one, so—contrary to the saying—I believe that a little knowledge is a reassuring thing.”
In fact, however—as we learn in the next paragraph—the “eager young researcher” has prepared four pages of “closely typed” questions, which sounds a bit more rigorous than Wikipedia-based work. And Gregory’s 20 sources, for someone writing history, would barely make a dent in the “complexity” she brags she’s achieved. I’m a relative newcomer to this Tudor world, and I have hundreds of books in my office, hundreds more articles in my files, and a desktop that’s so crowded with Tudorphernalia that I need the biggest iMac just to have room to write my book.
I wouldn’t be hammering away at Gregory if it were only her arrogance at issue. But the fact is that many of her readers take her at her word, and consider The Other Boleyn Girl to be a historically accurate recreation of events that actually happened. I’ve gotten plenty of direct evidence of this from audiences at my talks when I ask the opening question: “What do you know about Anne Boleyn?” “Six fingers” comes first (one myth Gregory isn’t responsible for.) Then: “She slept with her brother.” “She gave birth to a deformed child.” Sometimes, people will argue with me over the “facts” that they’ve learned from the book. Others have had the same experience:
“I think people assumed Gregory’s portrayal of the main characters had to be, in essence, more or less fair. I can remember at one point at university when the novel was brought up, someone criticised Mary Boleyn and said that in reality she had been a bedhopping slut, or something equally un-PC, and a girl in the room responded, ‘Well, Anne wasn’t exactly much better, was she?’ The novel’s portrayal of Anne as promiscuous, immoral and thoroughly nasty, I think, is what most people came away from TOBG assuming must have been more or less true… Philippa Gregory’s assertion that she only “filled in the gaps” when the historical record couldn’t provide the info she needed, implicitly led people to believe that everything in the book was either based on fact or was supposition that occurred only when the fact was absent. Many, if not most, of Anne Boleyn’s actions in TOBG bear little or no relation to the historical Anne’s. Her personality bears even less resemblance to the real woman. But people find it impossible or improbable that a novelist would claim historical credibility but would then make up SO much about one of the most famous women in British history. (Gareth Russell)
Even members of my facebook book page—unusually well-educated in things Tudor—frequently admit that before they began to delve deeper into the history, Philippa Gregory was their authority:
“I completely took TOBG as fact when first reading it in tenth grade! I had no real background knowledge on Anne before reading it, so I took what the book said as fact, especially after reading the author’s note. Ms. Gregory is a very good and CONVINCING author, and it took me reading some other books afterwards to “Detox” Gregory’s Anne from my mind! It really taught me not to take historical fiction at face value. I just don’t understand why she felt the need to demonize Anne so much, and to pass off said characterization of her as “Truth.” Sure Anne was far from perfect, but the way Gregory painted her…I kept on waiting for Anne to cackle and fly away on a broomstick or something!” (Katherine Stinson)
Stinson went to other books, and eventually got “detoxed.” And to be fair to Gregory, she often does “bring history to life” for many readers, sparking interest in the periods she writes about, and inspiring further research:
“The Other Boleyn Girl was actually the reason I became interested in Anne and her family and it definitely began my path to studying her in earnest. I was about 16 and I kind of got the feeling that the book was taking some liberties with her portrayal but it was so compelling that I couldn’t put it down. Say what you want about Phillippa Gregory but that woman knows how to keep a reader interested. That was about five years ago and I owe that book because without it, I would not have discovered one of my greatest interests” (Connie Panzariello)
“Historical fiction has helped my daughter, who has, up to this point, had zero interest in history, become totally obsessed with history! She is in middle school and history is no longer a drudgery for her. Some people (my son) like to read boring dull textbooks and regale you with facts, others need to learn a different way. My daughter can tell you all about the Tudor family tree. AND she got me reading these fabulous Philippa Gregory novels.”
“One learns several things through historical fiction. One learns to humanize the players in history. One learns to put themselves in their shoes and start asking hard questions about the people, the times, and about themselves. Ultimately, historical fiction creates an interest in the actual events, and a need to learn more. I have done more research, just out of curiosity, after reading a novel than I would have ever thought. Reading historical fiction has caused me to become a more informed person, and a great success at trivia games. As a teacher, I love them as a way to spark enthusiasm in my students. They make the facts come alive.”
The problem with “the facts coming alive” in Gregory’s books, however, is that her most ardent fans do not distinguish between well-researched trivia of the sort that can give you an advantage in board games and the lively—and perhaps “humanizing” but inaccurate—“facts” about what the characters said and did. Neither, it appears, does Gregory, who seems to believe that knowledge about manners, dress, food, or the bad breath of the pre-toothpaste Tudors is enough to keep her novels “grounded in historical fact”. Sometimes, Gregory’s training in literature sneaks up on her, and she suddenly becomes more seemingly aware of the dangers of verisimilitude: I was surprised by a recent, scholarly piece by Gregory to find her decrying “putting a convincing lie on the record.” “A convincing lie,” she writes, “is a wicked thing because it replaces the truth. If a lie is told with conviction and accepted as the sound coin of fact then no-one will question it. It becomes something we all think that we know. It becomes something we rely on. It becomes the self-evident fact.” It’s a thoughtful comment—but very puzzling that Gregory does not see that her own work is itself guilty.
The seductions of the “convincing lie” have become even more acute in our media-dominated, digitally enhanced era in which people are being cultural trained to have difficulty distinguishing between created “realities” and the real thing. If the created reality is vivid and convincing enough (whether it is a flawless, computer-generated complexion, or a “spin” on events) it carries authority—and that’s the way advertisers and politicians want it. The movies, which are often extremely attentive to historical details, creating a highly realistic texture for the scaffolding surrounding the actions of the characters, make it even harder for audiences to draw the line. Directors, who are after all focused on entertaining rather than educating, may not want audiences to draw that line. Thomas Sutcliffe, the director of The Other Boleyn Girl, describes Peter Morton as “brilliant at side-stepping the usual shrieking reflex of anxiety about mixing fantasy and truth.”
The novelists I interviewed would agree with Morton that too much “anxiety” about the fact/fiction divide would make the work of historical fiction impossible. Margaret George laughingly told me about overhearing someone say, about her Autobiography of Henry VIII, “This is just a lie! Henry VIII never wrote an autobiography!” But George also expressed concern that in an age when most people get their history from TV and movies, we are losing our collective sense of “what really happened.” As I write this, a controversy about this loss has been freshly stirred up by Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous,” which suggests that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays. Although among Shakespeare scholars, “the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts,” former English liteature professor Stephen Markie worries that thanks to the movie, “undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious.”
For thoughtful creators of fiction (whether written or cinematic) “shrieking anxiety” and “anything goes” are not the only alternatives. There’s the responsible middle-ground of recognition that there is an unavoidable tension between the demands of history and the requirements of fiction. As Hilary Mantel put it:
You have to think what you owe to history. But you also have to think what you owe to the novel form. Your readers expect a story. And they don’t want it to be two-dimensional, barely dramatized. So (and this is queasy ground) you have to create interiority for your characters. Your chances of guessing their thoughts are slim or none; and yet there is no reality left, against which to measure your failure.
Fiction is commonly more persuasive than history texts. After Wolf Hall was published, I was constantly being asked ‘Was Thomas More really like that? We thought he was a really nice man!’ I could only answer, ‘I am trying to describe how he might have appeared if you were standing in the shoes of Thomas Cromwell: who, incidentally, did not dislike him.’ But of course what I was really up against was A Man for All Seasons: the older fiction having accreted authority, just by being around for two generations. When I say to people, ‘Do you really think More was a 1960s liberal?’ they laugh. ‘Of course not.’ But (again, for the sake of honesty) you constantly have to weaken your own case, by pointing out to people that all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time.
 Jonathan Jones, in The Guardian. But this is nothing new. In the acclaimed PBS series on Henry as well as Anne of the Thousand Days movie, Anne is never seen reading a book, let alone conversing with Henry—as the actual Anne often did—about the religious debates of the day. Her role in Henry’s break from Rome is purely as the tantalizing object of his desire, his history-launching Helen, for whom he was willing to defy the pope, suffer excommunication, have old friends like More executed, and create a poisonous schism in his kingdom. One of the innovations of The Tudors is its break with this convention, largely due to the intervention of Natalie Dormer.